A common tool in group gatherings, whether it is a seminar or some other type of discussion, is to use an icebreaker to get the conversation going. The thinking is that asking a fun question can help jump start the discussions and bring everyone closer.
One common icebreaker question is one we have likely all been asked before. That is if we could have dinner with three other people, living or dead, who would it be? The question is often altered based on the needs of the day or the context of the gathering. For instance, since we are in the church if we were to ask that question we may say you couldn’t name Jesus, because we would assume everyone here would want to have dinner with Jesus. No matter who we say we want to have dinner with, our answers tell us a little bit about ourselves and help us to learn more about one another. For the record, the three people I would choose would be Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. I may not talk at that dinner.
The way we answer that question is even more interesting once you start to think about it. The people we name are, typically, people we have already welcomed into our lives. Whether we name political leaders, athletes, or celebrities, the people we would like welcome at our fictitious meal are people whom we like, want to learn from, or want to say, “hey, I ate with that person.” In a way, we want the people who are like us to be around us. Few of us likely would name people like drug addicts, abusers, or the poor as welcomed guests at our dinner table.
I wonder how Jesus would answer our icebreaker question? Who would Jesus invite to fellowship with him around his table? Our passage from Luke 15:1-10 may help us to see how Jesus would answer this question. The people Jesus would eat with are likely not the same people we would want to dine with.
Luke tells us Jesus routinely celebrated with the outsiders of the community. He seldom surrounded himself with society’s elite. Instead, he often dined and socialized with the one’s society had so often ignored and forgotten about. Jesus ate with the poor. He laughed with tax collectors. He conversed with women. Classes of people that society, in Jesus’ time, said were not welcomed in the religious circles and celebrations.
It was Jesus’ interactions with the outsiders that drew the ire of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were highly annoyed that Jesus would “waste his time” with such people. The fact Jesus would fellowship with tax collectors and sinners was often used to discredit Jesus’ earthly ministry. They could not understand how Jesus would associate himself with groups of people God had “clearly” said were not loved.
Jesus wasn’t concerned about their frustrations. It wasn’t going to make him stop. Jesus did something else. He instead showed everyone the depths of God’s love. By associating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus shows us just how amazing God’s love really is. God does not simply love the few, but indeed loves and welcomes all people. Even more, Jesus shows us that God actively goes out and searches for the people society often ignores and welcomes them into the kingdom of God. Here is another amazing piece of truth. God isn’t just doing this so that we may be able to say, “isn’t that nice, God.” The Lord does this so we might go out and do the same today.
God invites us to be people who welcome all people into our communities and fellowship in the name of Christ’s love. We get this picture from Luke 15. Chapter 15 features three parables that are connected to this idea of welcoming the people society believes to be outside of God’s love. They follow what we see from Jesus in the chapter’s first few verses of how he welcomes outsiders into his very own community. When we take a hard look at these parables from Chapter 15 we see that Jesus is about embracing those who society has excluded.
To understand this, we have to understand these dueling ideas of exclusion and embrace. To exclude means to separate ourselves from someone else. Think about exclusion being like a wall. A wall is intended to build separation, whether from rooms or, sadly in the course of human events, different people and cultures. A wall prevents communication and relationships from taking place. That is what happens when we exclude someone from our lives. We are telling them that they are not welcomed in our circles, our homes, our churches, or our lives. We keep ourselves distant from them. This is what the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted with the tax collectors and sinners of their day. They believed that because tax collectors often took more money than they should from people and that sinners were in violation of God’s laws that they should not be welcomed into their lives and in God’s love.
Jesus followed a different path. Jesus is not the Lord of exclusion, but the Lord of embrace. If exclusion is like a wall then embrace is like a big hug. A hug that pulls someone in and welcomes them into our lives and our community. A hug that, with out stretched arms, welcomes in those who were once outside. A hug that closes the distance that our acts of exclusion once created.
Jesus’ entire ministry was about embracing the very people who the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted no part of. When we embrace someone or a community of people we are making them feel loved, wanted, appreciated, and cared for. To embrace means to share God’s love with everyone, regardless of who they are, what they did, what they look like, how old they are, or where they came from. This is the embrace Jesus calls us to, because it is the embrace he lived into in his earthly ministry and continues to live into today. Jesus brought tax collectors into his inner circle. He healed people that were often left to themselves. He allowed women to be involved in his life and within the community. Jesus embraced all people and shared God’s love with all people.
More than this, Jesus also sought after these people. They didn’t just come to him to fellowship and hear his teachings. Jesus went out and sought them. God makes the first move in reaching out to those who are outside our communities. That is the message we can take from the parables of Luke 15:1-10. The parables of people searching for lost items – a sheep and a coin – are symbolic of Christ’s going out and finding those who were lost. Through these parables, Jesus says God reaches out for the people who are not in the community so that they may be welcomed and experience a new relationship and fellowship with the Lord. Jesus goes out and searches for those who are brokenhearted, who are struggling with their finances, who have done things we couldn’t even begin to imagine, and shares with them a hope, a love, and a peace that is beyond all understanding.
As well, Jesus says through the parable, God celebrates with them when they see the love and hope that comes from a relationship with the Lord. God celebrates with the forgotten and the outsider, as they experience a deep transformation and new hope in a relationship with the Lord. Jesus goes out into the world and embraces the people we may not be willing to embrace, shares love with them, and celebrates with them as they are brought into the community and the kingdom of God.
What does this say to us? If anything, I hope it reminds us of our calling to embrace as Christ embraces. As the church, we are called to imitate Christ in all things including making room in our lives, and in our churches, for those who society often rejects. So often the church can be seen as a place of exclusion, where only the selected few (those who look like us) are welcomed to the celebration. This kind of exclusion that we see all across the church today is no where near the love Christ wants us to offer to a hurting and broken world.
As followers of Christ, we are called to make room for the people that we so often believe God could never love. Look around our neighborhood and surrounding region and ask yourself this: Who are the modern day tax collectors and sinners who need to hear that God loves them and so do we? Who are the people in our communities that we so often forget about, believe God could never love, or do not want in our lives? Who do we need to make room for in our hearts, and in our church, so that all people may know the amazing hope of God’s love for them? God calls us not just to recognize that God loves them, but to go out and invite them into our community, our lives, so that they may experience the hope and love of God for themselves.
I know I have not been here long, but it does not take long to learn that Latonia is a community of deep hurts and pains. It is a community filled with many who are often excluded from our lives. There is a mission field all around us. A mission field where we are called to go out, in big and small ways, to share a hope that is embracing, a hope that is forever, a hope that is welcoming of all people. We have a mission field all around us filled with people who have a deep desire and need for the church to come together and search for ways to tell everyone who that God loves them and so do we.
Let us be that church! Let us be the church that is not defined by our exclusions, but our embrace of all people. Let us be the church that is not defined by our separations, but our desire to welcome other. Let us be the church that is not about who is out, but defined by who is welcomed in the kingdom of God. Let us be the church that welcomes all people as God has welcomed us.